The Darkest Hour (Chapter Nine, page 1 of 1)

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He drove the surrey to the old farmstead and they discussed how the house and outbuildings could be restored to make a dude ranch. They didn't go to the room upstairs and neither of them mentioned it. No longer filled with magic, the room would be haunted by bittersweet memories. It was late when they returned, and she left Alex in the barn to unhitch the horse while she went to the house to fix something to eat.
She was dreading the night. Now he would expect things to return to normal when they went to bed, and she didn't think she was ready. Physically, she had recovered, but emotionally? It was one thing to discuss financial plans, but would the desire be there for the intimacy they once shared? Or would she be merely submitting to his lawful privileges? She was no longer a complete woman. What if she couldn't satisfy him? What if she couldn't be satisfied?
By the time he came in for supper, she had worked herself into a nervous state. She fumbled and stammered and even spilled his tea. He slid back away from the table, grabbing a napkin to dam the tea from the edge of the table. After she cleaned up the mess, he reached out to her.
"Come here, sweetheart."
She came to his side. Now it would start.
He gazed up at her from his chair. "We've waited this long, there's no reason to push it like this. When we're ready, it will happen naturally. And it will be worth the wait."
She let out a long breath. He had said those words on their wedding night. Maybe he did understand. Maybe some of the old Alex was still there after all. They were making some progress, but she should desire him. Once she had found him irresistible. What was wrong? Was it because of the operation — because of what they had been through? Would things ever be the same between them?

The next morning at church, Carmen said something to Alex and he leaned down to hear her answer. He had a hand on her waist and Carmen glanced up to find Katie watching them intently. Katie grinned and winked knowingly at Carmen. Katie thought things had changed between them, but actually little had changed at all. But then, Katie didn't know how far they had drifted apart — or why.

Carmen was sitting on the window seat when Alex drove up Monday evening. She caught her breath and looked at the clock. She had been so involved with plans for the ranch that she had completely lost track of time. When he came through the door, she grabbed the clipboard to her chest and stared at him, red-faced.
He glanced at the empty table and then at her, the dark eyes expressing concern.
"Is something wrong?"
Her face flamed. "I forgot."
He smiled with relief. "No problem. Why don't we go out for supper? We haven't done that in a long time." He glanced at the clipboard. "What do you have there?"
She pulled the clipboard away from her chest and glanced down at it. "I was kind of thinking ... figuring some things ... about the ... ranch."
"Oh? Can I see them?"
"They aren't very good ... kind of basic." She offered the clipboard to him hesitantly
He took the clipboard and studied it, kicking his boots off as he did so. He crawled onto the window seat opposite her and crossed his legs, laying the clipboard on them while he scanned through her plans. Finally he glanced up, handing the clipboard to her.
"Interesting. You must have been thinking about this for a long time."
She blushed again. "I lost track of time. I didn't ..."
He smiled. "I meant years ago."
"Oh," her face grew warmer. "All my life, I guess."
He leaned back against the wall and gazed down at her thoughtfully. "That's a long time to have a dream unfulfilled."
She shrugged. "When we realize one dream, we go on to the next. We always have to have unfulfilled dreams. That's what keeps us going."
He nodded reflectively. "I suppose you're right." He shifted his attention to the old house. "I don't want you working down there by yourself. When you get ready to start, let me know and I'll hire you some help ... or I'll work with you."
It caught her by surprise and she glanced up at him sharply. It was the first directive he'd given her since she came home from the hospital. It was nice to hear the old conviction in that deep warm voice. It gave her a feeling of security.
When she didn't respond, he glanced at her inquisitively and then looked uncomfortable. The indecision was back in his expression, pushing away that feeling of security. His skin flushed under the dark tan.
"I guess I just shot myself in the foot."
She frowned. "Why do you say that?" And then she knew. "Because you made a decision? Didn't we agree that you would be head of the household?"
He looked bewildered. "I thought I got fired from that job."
She stared at him. "What gave you that idea?"
He shifted uncomfortably and his neck turned a darker shade of red. "Because I wasn't very good at it. Because I failed you ... miserably."
She felt sick to her stomach. No wonder he had been acting so strange lately. It was in his nature to take command, and yet he felt overwhelmed by what had happened. He felt responsible. Katie was right. He had been wounded deeply.
She sat on the window seat and touched his arm. "You didn't fail me, Alex. You stumbled — but if that's what it takes to get fired around here, I'd better start packing."
It was as if she lifted a load from his shoulders. He leaned back against the wall and smiled down at her, the dark eyes shedding their doubt.
"You leave those suitcases in the closet. If they get used, we'll use them together."
She leaned back against the wall and drew her knees up to her chest. They gazed at each other for a few moments in silence. Something warm and tingly began in the vicinity of her stomach and blood pumped fiercely in her neck. She felt giddy.
He stretched his legs out and slid them off the window seat. Straightening from the wall, he reached out a hand to her.
"Come on. Let's go get something to eat."
He stood and helped her up, drawing her into his arms. He held her there gently, gazing down at her tenderly. "Have I told you lately that I love you?"
She met his gaze anxiously and shook her head slowly. Not now. She wasn't ready yet. Maybe she shouldn't have mentioned that he was head of the household. Now he would think he could take his privileges as he desired.
One hand on her waist, drawing her close, and the other gently cradling her face, he lowered his head. His lips brushed hers lightly. She lay in his arms, afraid to answer the desire pounding at the door of her heart — afraid he would discover she was no longer the woman he married. When his lips sought hers again they were warm and demanding. He wanted her to participate.
For a few moments she resisted the temptation to surrender, but his embrace was electrifying and she found herself passionately returning his affection. She slipped her arms around his neck and snuggled against him. It was still there. Maybe it had fallen asleep for a while, but it was there.
His lips left her mouth and sought her neck. "Oh, Carmen. It's been so long," he whispered.
So long? With a start she realized where all this was going. No. They couldn't. He would find out. She pushed away from him.
"No, Alex. Not yet."
He frowned down at her. "Why not?"
What could she tell him? She stared at a flower pattern on the wall. "I don't know. I'm not ready yet."
He was quiet and she finally found the courage to look up at him. He was watching her reflectively. He rubbed his jaw with one hand.
"Why are you afraid, Carmen?"
"I'm not afraid." How did he know?
"Yes you are." He watched her intently. "Is it because of the operation?"
Her face burned and she looked away. "Maybe you won't ... I can't ..."
"Carmen," he interrupted, gripping her shoulders. "It isn't going to be any different than it was before."
She gazed up at him doubtfully. What would he know about how a woman felt? And how would he know if it was going to be any different?
"Come on. You're as ready as you're going to get. Putting it off isn't going to make it any easier. It's just going to make me a lot more frustrated."
He lifted her into his arms then and carried her to their bedroom. There, he kicked the door shut and proceeded to prove that he knew exactly what he was talking about. The old Alex was back.

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